Why do we climb mountains? An ageless question — one that infiltrates the mind of every climber to some degree. Many great climbers have pondered this, often arriving at diminutive answers that neither dull the selfishness of the act, nor justify its consequences. Especially within the realm of mountaineering where physical labor and suffering persist alongside the sheer joy that fills the senses while climbing, it is hard to extract sensible reason.
A Second Chance
Last year I won a grant from the American Alpine Club to climb the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire. While thwarted from finishing my goal due to weather, I enjoyed my time near the glacier, shadowed by those enchanting granite spires. After returning home, I stated I would be back to the Bugaboos and lay myself down at the place that joins earth and sky, the summit beneath me — but this time there was no external reason to drive me, no monetary grant— just desire. It was simply the pursuit of a mountaintop that resulted in my return the very next year, the pursuit of — happiness? Perhaps the sheer happiness of standing on a summit is the answer to why we climb, but the necessary training, physical effort, and undeniable discomfort muddle this simple solution, leaving it naked before the face of some deeper complexity.
There is magic in remote corners of the world, often masked by a haze of beauty so striking it is difficult to penetrate you’re left gawking and awing at its presence. Bugaboo Provincial Park is one of those places of untempered magic, a magnetic world where glaciers sprawl to the base of sun-kissed spires and a rare collection of the most dedicated alpinists gather to climb them, the grunts and exclamations of their efforts echoing off tall granite walls. I arrived with a straightforward goal but set out on a life-changing journey that would shape my perception of reality, instill respect for nature, and bring inexplicable joy.
It was 4:30 am and the camp came alive in a cacophony of alpine music — the clanking of gear, the hissing of cook stoves, and soft murmurs muddled by tent walls and shelters. My partner and I set out briskly, our headlamps flooding a triangle of light at our feet, illuminating a twisted path marked by silver cairns stacked atop jagged boulders. The thud of mountaineering boots transitioned to crunching as we left the boulder field for the glacier and made our way through fields of snow-covered ice. Crampons crunched as they bit the surface, keeping our bodies from slipping as we pressed onwards. Crunch. Step. Crunch. The undulating sounds formed a rhythmic pattern that served as a soundtrack for our journey, breaking the quiet stillness of the morning.
The sun peeked its head above the granite peaks behind us, flooding the valley in an alpine glow, its creamy pink tendrils extending to the mountain ahead. Bugaboo Spire rose up like a foreboding statue in the distance, its rounded ridge line cutting a sharp oval into the fading darkness. I kept staring up at the granite beast with romantic longing and equal apprehension.
I hardly remember the climb itself — just moments in time pasted like newspaper clippings to the forefront of my mind. The approach was long and battering, comprised of alternating patches of awkward, chossy scrambling in mountaineering boots and stretches of frozen snow where we switched to ice axes and crampons. The rope-up terrace came as a welcome reprieve and I gave an elated squeal at the elegant granite cracks that rose up before me. The climb seemed to pass by in a blur — fingertips smearing course rock and sticky rubber locking expertly into cracks as we sailed upward across the sea of granite. My partner and I traded leads in perfect rhythm, flaking rope and exchanging gear with practiced ease. Everything seemed to move at an accelerated rate but my mind caught momentary snapshots of the wild beauty of this place. It swaddled me so tightly and profoundly that it seeped down into my core, leaving room for nothing but sheer elation and appreciation for the place I found myself.
As I stood on the summit of Bugaboo Spire surveying the world the before me, I finally had the answer I sought. My bare feet were tingling against the cold granite, chest heaving with exertion, fingers bloodied and raw from pulling on sharp rock, but I felt nothing except belonging. I was merely a speck of stardust on this mountaintop of the world — but I was seeing something that few people ever get to see and it changed my entire perception. I suddenly felt connected to everything — every other speck of stardust in the universe; we were breathing together, thinking together, and moving together across an ocean of sound, sight, and feeling.
Why do we climb mountains? Everyone has their reasons. For me, it’s because the wild places the mountains take me provide a deeper sense of connection with the rest of humanity. I will never stop searching for those magical places.